Utah Passes Bill Authorizing Execution by Firing Squad

This week legislators in Utah passed a bill that allows the state to execute death row inmates with a firing squad if prison officials cannot obtain the drug cocktail used in lethal injections.  Utah is the first of many states considering the move to pass such legislation, suggesting that the growing problems with lethal injection death-penalty procedures is having an impact on capital punishment policy across the US.

Utah Passes Bill Allowing Execution by Firing Squad

Earlier this week, the Utah state Senate passed by a vote of 18 – 10 a bill that would make firing squad the official secondary method of execution to be used in situations when the state does not have the necessary drugs for lethal-injections.  Republican Paul Ray, who sponsored the bill, argued that, despite images conjured by a firing squad, the method is actually more humane than lethal injection because inmates are executed faster and with less potential for negative side effects of the drug.  Whether or not Ray is correct remains subject of fierce debate, but the impetus driving the bill was one of necessity rather than a desire to make Utah’s method more humane.

Utah, like many states, is struggling to keep adequate supply of the drugs necessary for lethal injection.  In response to a growing shortage, driven largely by the refusal of European companies to sell the drugs to American prisons as a means of protesting the death-penalty, Rep. Ray and his colleagues submitted the suggestion that Utah implement a back-up plan for executions in the event the state found itself without lethal injection drugs. 

Authorizing a firing squad is not new in Utah – up until 2004 the state allowed inmates to select firing squad over lethal injection, and the last inmate executed by firing squad was Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010.  Gardner, whose pre-2004 conviction allowed him to choose his method of execution before the law was repealed, was executed by five police officers with .30-caliber Winchester rifles without incident.

Questions of Lethal Injection Process Drives Firing Squad Bill

One notable effect of the reduced supply in lethal injection drugs is the occurrence of “botched” executions in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Ohio in 2014.  Although prison officials deny that mistakes were made, three executions that dragged out apparently at the suffering of the inmate raised enough questions for several states to put lethal injection on hold until a reliable drug mixture could be found.  At issue is a shortage of the drug that anesthetizes the inmate prior to the administration of the lethal drugs, a process that is lengthy and painful if not properly sedated.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court agreed to review Oklahoma’s death-penalty procedures, specifically focusing on the constitutionality of the new drug formula that many states have adopted to accommodate the shortage of previously used chemicals.  With the shortage of lethal injection drugs and questions surrounding the constitutionality, and humanity, of new measures, it is not surprising that Utah considered alternatives to its execution procedure.  Although firing squad is not foolproof – a Washington, D.C. policy center argues that it could be more painful if the inmate moves or the officers miss – Utah lawmakers were convinced that it was sufficiently humane to allow it as a back-up plan when lethal injection drugs are not available.

Other States Consider Use of Firing Squad

Utah’s decision to authorize the use of firing squad in executions may spur action in Wyoming, Alabama, and Oklahoma where legislators are considering similar proposals.  As Rep. Ray articulated, proponents of execution by firing squad argue it is cheap, fast, and, given concerns with new lethal injection drugs, more humane in practice.  Opponents of the method find it barbaric, and argue that allowing firing squads moves the death-penalty debate backwards rather than towards a more progressive solution.

With debate swirling, Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert has not decided whether or not to sign the Utah firing squad bill into law.  Should the bill pass, Utah’s preferred method of death-penalty will remain injection, but the added option of legalized execution by firing squad could open the door for other states facing the lethal injection dilemma.

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